When I was a much younger man, I found myself in the greeting card section of some store or other while my young bride was shopping. To pass the time, I started reading the greeting cards--first the funny ones, then the lovey-dovey ones. And what I saw among the lovey-dovey ones shocked and mortified me: Every idea or feeling expressed in every one of those cards was an idea or feeling that I had, at one time or another, considered putting into a poem or letter to my wife.
Somehow we get it in our heads that our emotions are unique. It was a blow to my ego to stand there in the greeting card aisle and realize that all those highly refined feelings I felt about my wife had been felt before--and by enough people that those feelings could become the basis of a mass-market product!
If you're a writer, here's an idea you need to get into your head, and soon: You don't have any original feelings (and you probably don't have any original ideas). This is good news, not bad news. The whole reason writing works, the whole reason you can connect with any reader, is the fact that we all have the same feelings. (This is also why counseling works...and, I suppose, why friendship works. People are complicated, sure, but their complexity derives from the combination of a finite number of possibilities.)
Love letters, love poems, and Valentines are often hard to write because a) we think we're supposed be talking about our feelings, and b) we want to say something original. To which I say, good luck. You may be able to pull it off. Sometimes people do. But there are other ways to skin the Valentine's cat. I'm going to offer some alternative strategies below. But first I want to have a look at a poem that has become a de facto model for love poetry.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee" (Sonnet 43 of Sonnets from the Portuguese), is kind of the quintessential Valentine's poem. It works more or less the way a greeting card works, only better:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I want you to notice a few things about this poem.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
That third point--the poem's universal applicability--goes a long way to explain why everybody knows this poem (or at least its first line). This poem gives words to some of the things that many of us have felt; concrete specifics would have made it less universally applicable. This is what I mean when I say that this poem works like an especially good greeting card. That sounds like a back-handed compliment, but I think that Elizabeth Barrett Browning has accomplished something that is exceedingly difficult. If you can write a poem that comes at love head-on, involves no concrete nouns or specifics, and is still an excellent poem, you have a gift. Use it. Most of us can't do that, though. Any time I've tried to put into words how I love my wife, it feels like I'm trying to explain how wet water is or how bright the sun is.
- It speaks directly about love. The whole poem is about the difficulty of quantifying love.
- It lives almost entirely in the realm of the abstract. In the first four lines alone, I count eight abstract nouns and zero concrete nouns (though the pronouns "I" and "thee" refer to human beings, which are concrete).
- Everything in this poem is universally applicable to any committed romantic relationship.
So if you aren't the next Elizabeth Barrett Browning, here are a few things that might help as you put pen to paper between now and Valentine's Day:
Forget about the universal: be specific.
You're not writing for an anthology. You're writing for a person. What is something that you share with that person that's NOT universal? Start there, and let the universals take care of themselves. Think of a single day that you spent with your beloved. Tell the story of that day. You don't need to turn the whole thing into a metaphor. Just start telling about the day and see what happens. A metaphor might present itself. It might not. Some great insight might appear. Or not. If those things offer themselves to you, great. Pursue them. But in the mere narrating of the event, two things will definitely happen, both of which are more important than metaphors or insights:
Consider this anonymous poem from fourth-century China:
- You will have memorialized a day that meant something to you. That in itself is valuable.
- In the straight-ahead narration of the story, you evoke the feelings that your beloved felt on that day. There is nothing more evocative than a sentence that starts, "Remember that time...?"
No metaphors. No similes. No mention of love or longing. But imagine you were the girl in the boat. If you received this poem in your Valentine, can you imagine how evocative it would be? For this particular couple, this simple little story would be more evocative than the most brilliant simile ever invented.
PLUCKING THE RUSHES
[A BOY AND GIRL ARE SENT TO GATHER RUSHES FOR THATCHING]
Green rushes with red shoots,
Long leaves bending to the wind —
You and I in the same boat
Plucking rushes at the Five Lakes.
We started at dawn from the orchid-island:
We rested under the elms till noon.
You and I plucking rushes
Had not plucked a handful when night came!
In "Because," Linda Pastan remembers the day her husband asked her to marry her and spells out her contradictory reasons for saying Yes. Some of her reasons are very universal ("because life seemed so short;/because life stretched before me") and some of her reasons are oddly specific (because I knew that after twenty years/ you’d bring the plants inside for winter/ and make a jungle we’d sleep in naked").
This is a completely different strategy from a greeting card. You can't sell a greeting card that says "Remember that time we went out to gather rushes in a boat?" or "I love you for the way you bring the plants inside in winter and make a little naked-sleeping-jungle." That kind of specificity--which in this context is a kind of intimacy--can't be bought or sold. You're looking to give your Valentine something that only you could write--and that could only be written about your beloved.
In "The Skunk," Seamus Heaney tells about the time his wife reminds him of a skunk. It's sweeter than it sounds, though I'm not sure most of us could pull that one off. Still, it is intimate and specific in a way that a greeting card could never be.
You might also consider what you and your beloved share. That's a recurring theme in Wendell Berry's "The Country of Marriage." Have you combined your books into one bookcase? How is sharing toothpaste working out for you?
There are a lot of great poems about waking up in a shared bed. Two of my favorite are "Daybreak," by Stephen Spender, and "It Is Marvelous to Wake Up Together," by Elizabeth Bishop.
Here are a few more questions that might shake loose something small and specific that you can work with:
A special category for the forgetful
- What do you know about your beloved that nobody else knows?
- What do you understand about your beloved that your beloved doesn't know about him/herself?
- What is something your beloved told you that made a big impact on you?
- How is your life different now than it was before you met your beloved? Be specific and concrete. Not "I used to be lonely and now I'm not," but "I used to drive a motorcycle but now a drive a minivan."
- What was your first clue that you loved this person?
If you're having trouble remembering a specific day to write about, or if you don't have any idea how you came to love your beloved, maybe ask yourself what you're curious about. What do you wish you knew about this person? Curiosity about another person goes a long way. In "Myfanwy," John Betjeman wonders what it would have been like to know his beloved as a schoolgirl. In "The Luckiest," Ben Folds asks,
What if I had been born fifty years before you
Actually, I can't decide whether that's more sweet or more creepy. But in the same song he imagines a future with his beloved when he reflects on his ninety-year-old neighbors. That's another strategy you might consider.
In a house on the street
Where you lived?
Maybe I'd be outside as you passed on your bike. Would I know?
And in a wide sea of eyes
I'd see one pair that I recognize
And if you don't remember meeting your beloved, you can take a page from Christina Rossetti. In "The First Day" she admits that she can't remember meeting her man, so she makes up an imaginary version instead.
A word about simile and metaphor
There's a long tradition in love letters and love poetry of praising the beloved by way of ornate similes and metaphors. "Her eyes are like diamonds"...that sort of thing. It seems to me that anybody who praises a woman's eyes by comparing them to diamonds hasn't paid much attention to a woman's eyes. I still haven't seen a diamond that's as brilliant as a woman's eyes.
If a brilliant simile or metaphor offers itself to you, great. But don't force it. I got in some trouble once for telling my beloved that her eyes were as brown as telephone poles.
You probably know Shakespeare's sonnets in which he makes fun of the similes that had become cliches in the love poetry of his era: "My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun" (Sonnet 130) and "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" (Sonnet 18)
And I especially love "Litany," by Billy Collins (in the linked video, he explains what he's up to before he reads the poem.
Here are few more of my favorites for your inspiration. I'll look further at some of these in tonight's webinar.
"So Much Happiness" by Naomi Shahab Nye
"A Dedication to My Wife," by T.S. Eliot
"Ruth," by Thomas Hood
"I Knew a Woman" Theodore Roethke
"She Tells Her Love" Robert Graves
"Cherish" by Raymond Carver
As I mentioned this time last year, the important thing is not that you write something brilliant, but that you write something. Your beloved isn't an editor. And even if your beloved is an editor, he or she will appreciate your effort to memorialize your love.